San Francisco’s “Savage” New Year’s Eve: December 31, 1897

January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Remembering the Past: Tradition and Temporality

As the New Year approaches, the American tradition of reflecting on the year’s past and one’s own future comes to bear on us all. The ritual of a New Year’s renewal is certainly much older than our own nation. According to historians like Michael Kammen, the New Year had always brought a cultural urge in Americans to take stock in the past, and orient one’s self towards a perceived future existence (and by implication one’s present existence). In relation to my investigation and understanding of San Francisco’s collective identity in the 1890s, public New Year’s celebrations offer a similar window into glimpsing the city’s collective identity as other participatory public events such as California’s Admission Day presents. Observing how the city’s inhabitants celebrate this cultural tradition reveals how individuals and groups understand their shared urban society’s existence in time. Similar to Washington’s Birthday, California’s Admission’s Day, and the Fourth of July, mass public celebrations demonstrated symbolic representations of the society’s social order and collective self-awareness.

"San Francisco New Years Eve, 1898"

Image in The San Francisco Call (January 1, 1898) depicting the celebration of New Years Eve as the procession passes the Claus Spreckels Building (The Call Building)

As the San Francisco’s regional economic and cultural dominance began to be significantly challenged by other Pacific urban centers like Los Angeles and Seattle, the city’s uptick in the 1890s inspired a new debate in the public sphere on the city’s regional status and future. Exemplified in James D. Phelan’s oration on opening day of the 1896 Mechanics’ Fair, San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite saw the dawning of a new era as the ending of the century neared. What was San Francisco’s role within the western most region of the American nation? How did the city’s residents see the New Year in relation to their city? One glimpse of the answer to these questions can be found in observing and analyzing how people participated in these festivities.

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